Every possible story but the true one

This essay is greatly informed by analytical and ethical frameworks developed by Christina Sharpe, Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Che Gossett and others along with Marcus Rediker’s historical research even where not directly cited though they cannot be blamed for my failings. Should you find this essay engaging please uplift their works, the directly influential ones being listed at the bottom. Special thanks to Megan Spencer for their valuable feedback on the draft and to both Megan again and Zoé Samudzi for being thought partners on the ideas while writing. I try to avoid detailing anti-Black violence yet found no way to escape implying or vaguely describing some easily imaginable and horrible scenarios so a HUGE CONTENT WARNING FOR ANTI-BLACK VIOLENCE AND AFRICAN SLAVERY is in order. Feedback whether constructive, destructive or other always welcomed.

 

The 2018 box office hit The Meg proved that the shark attack film remains a staple of the nature horror genre. The Meg has already a sequel in development and spawned a knockoff in the same year, Megalodon. These focus on groups of people under threat from one or many charcharocles megalodon sharks, a species extinct for over two million years that grew to over fifty feet long. Others in the genre look at contemporary species like great white and bull sharks, lab-created super genius sharks, sharks in unexpected places like the under sand or in Australian supermarkets, shark-cephalopod hybrids, sharks using storms to migrate and hunt, sharks from beyond the grave and more. It seems just about every possible and a great many more impossible stories of sharks eating people has been told in nature horror, except for the one time that people were regularly, dependably, for a long period eaten by sharks: the Middle Passage.

Most shark species cannot kill people and almost all those that can never think to try as we great apes largely do not register as prey items, not to mention that sharks struggle a bit to hunt where all people are very nearly all the time, outside of the water. The small number that do sometimes bite people largely do so while being harassed or out of curiosity (a light biting is a ‘what’s this?’ investigatory technique – though this can still be fatal). The even smaller number that on rare occasions attack intending to prey largely mistake people for more familiar mammals like seals or bite while attempting to procure something attached to a diver as with the catch on a spearfisher’s string. A couple of species are both capable of killing people and also generalist predators that likely register people as potential prey. Only three shark species are confirmed to account for more than ten total human fatalities, the great white, tiger and bull. A fourth, the oceanic whitetip, likely accounts for many fatal attacks in remote, open waters unlikely to be recorded.

Despite the rarity of attacks, sharks occupy a primary location in colonial productions of nature horror – a genre positing a perpetual threat to “man” from an Othered animal or vegetal being, think: animal attack movies or a less comedic Little Shop of Horrors. Sharks are imposing beings and larger species are capable of tremendous power and rending of flesh in the course of their feeding. And given that people do travel over or swim in waters where sharks live or frequent, let’s call these human-infested waters, the very rare human-as-calories tragedy is bound to happen. The potential for horror here is visceral and obvious. Val Plumwood’s essay “On Being Prey” reflects upon her experience surviving a predatory attack by a saltwater crocodile in the north of the Australian settler colony. She describes it as “an experience beyond words of total terror”. The idea of being killed and eaten, or being killed by being eaten, is necessarily horror. This would be the case even if colonialism did not create “a masculinist monster myth” of order being synonymous with human dominance, a “master narrative” of control over and distance from ecological systems, a counterposition of humanity-animality.

Yet for all the horror of the idea of being prey, there is a total lack of malignance in that fate even as many nature horror stories project ideas of diabolical intent upon attacking animals. They were hungry and there you were or, they were wary of your intrusion and you intruded. It’s not a malignant calculus any more than some chameleon has some grudge against some grasshopper. The violence is strictly mis/opportunistic and the individual creatures involved are incidental, just the right combination of lucky/unlucky that defines predator/prey encounters. This is not the case in the Middle Passage. Humans as shark prey in the Middle Passage has purposeful intent from the terroristic to the punitive to the arbitrary. The horror is malignant not by the sharks’ actions, but in how slavers made captive Africans into shark food. Think Jaws combined with Saw combined with Hannibal and you’re in the ballpark, albeit far less horrifying than the actual details which I recommend against investigating for traumatic reasons but also ethical ones around the drive to consume and reproduce anti-Black violence.

During the Middle Passage, slavers fed murdered and living Africans to sharks as a convenient disposal of murdered remains and troublesome persons, to terrify living captives against escape or suicide overboard, to punish captives involved in insurrections and more. Slavers describe all of that in their contemporary narratives as well as Africans escaping ships to unknown fates including repatriation and liberation as well as death by shark. Slavers murdered at least two million Africans during the Middle Passage and discarded nearly all into the Atlantic. Sharks did not consume all these souls, but they consumed many. If sharks consumed just 1,000 of those dead or living – I found no estimates, reliable or otherwise, but 1,000 is at least a factor of ten below a wildly conservative guess if their frequency in slaver narratives is representative – that would still be nearly 20% higher than all combined fatal and non-fatal shark bites/attacks in the Florida Museum global database hosted by the University of Florida that tracks shark attacks since 1582, and 85% higher than the total verified fatal shark attacks. By any measure, the Middle Passage accounts for the overwhelming preponderance of cases of people being consumed by sharks. The percentage, though unknown in detail, is sufficient to say that it is the the “normal” way sharks eat people with all other examples being statistically peripheral. (This if my readings of shark ecology are correct in concluding that most historical ocean-going ships travel too fast for sharks to pursue longer than briefly or are otherwise not attractive to sharks leaving lesser probabilities for shark predation in the event of shipwreck, even incorrectly assuming a historically and geographically flat population density of sharks per square kilometer and oceanic shipwreck distribution).

The Meg, it’s knock-off Megalodon and its pending sequel, 2002’s Shark Attack 3: Megalodon and an earlier Megalodon from the same year, 2012’s Jurassic Shark, 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus or any of the Mega Shark franchise, 2011’s Super Shark and the 2001 Antonio Sabato Jr. vehicle Shark Hunter account for ten of the feature length films about an extinct shark hunting people, a species that never once encountered any great ape in its millions of years of existence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Sci-fi doesn’t have to have much sci in it to be a fun or good story. Over ten impossible megalodon films but not one involving the predominant political geography of material world consumption of people by sharks. Why are our imaginary universes so rarely grounded in material violences like the Middle Passage? This isn’t just the sci-fi shark attack stories like The Meg, Sharknado and 2-Headed Shark Attack.

I earlier argued that nearly all shark attack films are sci-fi in that sharks are not, as a rule, capable of consuming as much food as they do in shark attack movies. An adult great white is not plausibly likely to eat hundreds of pounds of people in two days like in The Shallows, much less in minutes as with Jaws 2. But even in those films portrayed as real-world like Jaws, I’m aware of none that take place in or reference the only historical geography where shark attacks on people were common and predictable. There are films like Frenzy and Open Water with divers and boaters marooned in remote areas in the face of hungry sharks but none of actual marronage from both slavers and their accompanying sharks. This has always been the case in film and tv but not always in other mediums.

 

Petition of the Sharks of Africa

Petition picture from the University of Virginia website

Scottish abolitionist and radical James Tytler produced in 1792 an early modern fantastic fiction work in his “The PETITION of the SHARKS of Africa” addressed “To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain, in Parliament Assembled”. In the petition, sharks collectively beg Parliament to not heed the demands of abolitionists as it will deprive a “numerous body” in “a very flourishing situation” of “many a delicious meal” of “large quantities of their most favourite food” over “the specious plea of humanity” that is abolitionism. Abolitionists made much out of the horror of slavers feeding captive Africans to sharks.

Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on

JWM Turner 1840 painting: Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on. Picture from Wikipedia

J.W.M. Turner’s 1840 oil on canvas Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (also called The Slave Ship) horrifically foregrounds a slave ship rollicking in heavy seas with sharks setting upon “the dead and dying” Africans-made-into-commodities thrown overboard. There are other pamphlets, poems, paintings, media accounts and more.

Yet fantastic fiction canon bibliographies do not mention Tytler’s text. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that displays Turner’s painting describes it as “a striking example of the artist’s fascination with violence both human and elemental” but does not mention the sharks in the painting, no matter that the foreground dominates the canvas. It goes beyond this. The Florida Museum worldwide historical shark attack database linked above does not, as best I can determine, account for a single Middle Passage attack. The Wikipedia pages for “Shark Attack” and the various geographical “List of fatal unprovoked shark attacks” pages do not mention the Middle Passage nor any of the documented African murders and deaths by shark during it. I could not access the entirety of every Discovery Channel Shark Week production but from what I could access or review through secondary sources, the Middle Passage is absent from its documentary coverage as well as that of Blue Planet and other NatGeo, Nature, Nova, BBC and other wildlife documentaries about or featuring sharks. Much like shark attack cinema, every possible and impossible shark attack story can be told except for the ones that comprise the vast preponderance. Why should this be?

Marcus Rediker writes about tall ships in perfect analogy to shark attack cinema in his 2008 article in Atlantic Studies, “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”.

Recently I have been studying one kind of tall ship: the slave ship. During this time I discovered the limit of the romance [with tall ships]. It extends to all tall ships except the most important one. The slave ship is so far from romantic that we cannot bear to look at it, even though it was one of the two main institutions of modern slavery. The other, the plantation, has been studied intensively, but slave ships hardly at all. The rich historical literature has much to say about the origins, time, scale, flows, and profits, but little to say about the vessel that made it possible, even though the slave ship was the mechanism for history’s greatest forced migration, for an entire phase of globalization, an instrument of “commercial revolution” and the making of plantations, empires, capitalism, industrialization. If Europe, Africa, and Americas are haunted by the legacies of race, class, and slavery, the slaver is the ghost ship of our modern consciousness.

Rediker was writing prior to Christina Sharpe’s monumental 2016 volume In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and the research and work it inspires along with some preceding work but his point remains largely true. In Fred Moten’s phrasing, the Middle Passage is “the interpellative event of modernity in general.” It establishes ways of meanings through which we understand the world. The answer to the above questions about investigating every possible and impossible scenario in shark attack movies except for the main one is in Moten’s phrasing. The Middle Passage and African Slavery are frames of reference through which we experience the contemporary world. Settler colonialism destroys the Native world to build the anti-Black one and in this building creates ways of meaning, frames of reference, interpellations, discourses, normativity. As the “interpellative event” the Middle Passage is what creates the world in which shark attack movies are imagined. The narrative gap between the world that creates shark attack movies and the world they purport to portray lies in the difficulty of finding, or thinking to look for, a frame of reference with which to observe our frame of reference.

The 2007 sensationalist documentary Sharks on Trial opens asserting that “sharks terrify us” and “trigger our deepest primeval fears”. “Primeval” in this context is weirdly appropriate in how it suggests the Middle Passage as the “interpellative event of modernity in general,” how it is world building. Some colonizing empires, geographies or proto-states had earlier descriptions or cultural and linguistic representations of sharks but lost them during the Medieval period. José Castro writes that “Large sharks were known to the Greeks and Romans, and references to large sharks of the Mediterranean are found in the writings of classical writers from Aristotle to Aelian,” but that “Large sharks are conspicuously absent from the medieval bestiaries that described the then known fauna as well as some imaginary animals.” The word shark enters the English and Spanish languages through the Middle Passage. Rediker writes that “the English shark thus seems to have entered the English language through the talk of slave-trade sailors, who may have picked up and adapted the word ‘xoc,’ […] from the Maya in the Caribbean.” Castro notes the “Spanish borrowed the word tiburón from the Carib[s].” Understanding the Middle Passage as modernity’s “interpellative event” means sharks are part of creating the modern world, a synonym for the anti-Black one, making consciousness of them “primeval” indeed.

Works like Thomas Peschak’s 2013 text from University of Chicago Press, Sharks and People: Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea studiously ignore the medieval pre/proto-European break in shark knowledge instead asserting that “Historians have traced fear of sharks back to ancient times, as far back as the the civilizations of Greece and Rome.” Leaving aside the glaring absence of Kru, Polynesian and other non-European coastal and seafaring populations’ shark narratives — including those from the populations from which colonizers took words for sharks — filling in an appropriately blank spot to draw an ahistorical lineage obscures the Middle Passage’s founding role in colonial understandings of the shark as horror fodder. Peschak’s book is geared toward the noble goal of shark conservation while dedicating just one-half of one paragraph amongst 286 pages to the Middle Passage, the only modern period were there was anything close to parity in the numbers of people eaten by sharks and sharks eaten by people. As opposed to today when sharks comprise roughly 99.9999958% of the annual deaths in fatal human-shark encounters and humans around .0000042%, primarily through capitalist enclosure of seascapes and commodification of sealife for rents and profits. Anti-Blackness, this formation of a humanity-animality binary with Black people positioned as, in Frank Wilderson’s terms, commodifiable sites of accumulation and locations for gratuitous violence, provides the grammar for the mass shark slaughters, for making monsters of sharks, that Peschak and others so justly campaign against. Leaving the Middle Passage out of this narrative reduces the legibility of what creates both anti-Blackness and mass shark slaughters through capitalist fishing.

Just as shark attack cinema is colonial cultural production, the Middle Passage sharks are a part of a colonial ecology. Their desires were for a mix of shade from the hot tropical sun and the convenient food that often accompanies large, slow moving, floating objects, but slavers deployed those impulses as part of a terror regime. Rediker quotes one source saying

the master of a Guinea-ship, finding a rage for suicide among his slaves, from a notion the unhappy creatures had, that after death they should be restored again to their families, friends, and country; to convince them at least some disgrace should attend them here, he immediately ordered one of their dead bodies to be tied by the heels to a rope, and so let down into the sea; and, though it was drawn up again with great swiftness, yet in that short space, sharks had bit off all but the feet.

Other sources narrate kidnapped Africans being fed alive to sharks for the same purpose of terrorizing others. Sharks then, formed the exterior perimeter of The Hold and were purposefully recruited for that function. Redicker quoting again, “Our way to entice [sharks] was by Towing overboard a dead Negro which they would follow till they had eaten him up.” For colonizers the origins of shark chumming was not to catch sharks but to attract them as predators for the purpose of horror, for the purpose of a living fence.

Christina Sharpe writes, “The belly of the ship births blackness.” The slave ship’s Hold is the indigenous geography of Blackness including it’s construct of Black Captivity. The Hold’s geography of Black Captivity intended totalization. If The Hold is where Blackness is born, sharks are its birth attendants. One slave ship passenger wrote, per Rediker, “we caught plenty of fish almost every day, especially Sharks, which wee salted, & preserv’d for ye Negroes.” He continued, “They are good victuals, if well dress’d, tho’ some won’t eat them, because they feed upon men; ye Negroes fed very heartily upon them.” Thinking again of Plumwood’s “experience beyond words of total terror” at being crocodile prey, escape overboard from The Hold is exactly this yet compounded with Black Captivity. Death and/or consumption by shark may not offer any freedom from The Hold but could mean being very literally fed back into it or nourishing one’s former captors, mediated by sharks. One’s physical being put to work after biological death is a level of totalitarian control difficult to approach. While the sharks themselves offer no malevolence, they are mediators for slavers’ cruelties, desires and hungers. Almost all shark attack movies aspire towards horror but none approach this, not in topic nor terror. Not even those that make out sharks as illegible monsters, as ‘here be dragons’.

Despite everything written above, I’m neither interested in nor calling for movies or stories about sharks eating captive Black people in horror cinema and television. Social media, cinema, TV and carceral systems are already chock full of Black death and pain intended for consumption, often under the ruse of “wokeness”. It’s part of the continual construction and production of anti-Blackness. Inside of anti-Blackness there is no revolutionary potential in this kind of production of cinematic Black death. But grounding our imaginary universes inside material violences does not necessitate reproducing them. Part of cinematic horror, including nature horror, is the relief that comes with the end of the horror affect, as when someone is finally rescued from or kills an attacking shark. In shark attack movies this can mean sharks as secondary terror elements in Middle Passage revolt, survival or escape stories. Or even sharks as intentional allies in vanquishing slavers – an inversion of The Hold as a location of Black captivity, instead its wanton destruction becoming what Wilderson describes as “gratuitous freedom” – and so many more possibilities. This second example where the cruel sharks of nature horror can similarly plot in hypothetical Middle Passage stories applies equally to antecedents of other fictional aquatic beings like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Madison from Splash, Aquaman and Namor in comics and others. Where, in their universes, were their ancestors during the Middle Passage? Like the imaginary villainous sharks of nature horror with their bottomless stomachs, their peoples necessarily encountered the Black Atlantic during the Middle Passage. What happened next?

jaws

A shark prop supposed to be a great white reduces the settler population by one. Screencap from Jaws (1975)

Instead of shark attack cinema reproducing anti-Black normativity through examining every possible story but the true one, it can offer different reference points for meaning. Instead of anti-Blackness being the frame through which the story is told, a different positionality can be the frame that breaks The Hold. A Black liberation shark attack story does not the revolution make, to be egregiously obvious. But each contribution towards ways of meaning not premised upon anti-Blackness creates a new potential hegemony, a new lens through which we engage the world and, in that, a partial end to the present world. It also turns upside down existing shark attack cinema, reframing colonizers being “victimized” by sharks as not horror. Sharks, following “the ghost ship of our modern consciousness” are the heroes haunting the settlers. I don’t want to overstate the potential individual enterprises like what a single shark attack movie against The Hold could do. But it’s hard to imagine action for real change without talking about things. And cinema is one form of conversation. And the nature horror genre can be part of that conversation when it stops giving us every possible story but the true one. Thanks for reading.

 

Works providing the basis for this essay

Saidiya Hartman Scenes of Subjection

Saidiya Hartman & Frank Wilderson “The Position of the Unthought”

Frank Wilderson Red, White and Black

Fred Moten Stolen Life

Jared Sexton “Unbearable Blackness”

Christina Sharpe In the Wake

Marcus Rediker “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”

Val Plumwood “On Being Prey”

Casting a Spell of Settler Normativity

doctor_strange_ver2

The 2016 film Dr. Strange is a paradigmatic example of how the settler society naturalizes settler colonialism in the imaginary universes it produces. The film studiously avoids political discussion so the coloniality is only implied, albeit quite heavily. Folks who followed Dr. Strange’s production will remember problems in the film’s production related to both the orientalist narrative and whitewashing of the cast . But this is not where the film’s racism ends. As noted previously on this blog, the US settler society produces imaginary universes that share it’s premise of indigenous removal. The Marvel universe is no different than the material universe in this regard. The United States destroys the native world through constructing the anti-Black one.

We learn towards the end of Dr. Strange that there are three “sanctums” operated by the Masters of the Mystic Arts. One is in Hong Kong and the second in London. Neither of these are obvious historical choices for a mythology supposedly stemming from the Tibetan plateau. But both have had human populations for several thousand years. So let’s chalk it up to drift. The third is in New York City. Why should this be? Why would this ancient sect set up shop in such a young city? How long has it been there? Were/are the sorcerers settlers? Did native Masters of the Mystic Arts prior to European colonization operate the sanctum? No matter how we answer these questions they exemplify settler normativity, how the destruction of the native world and construction of the anti-Black one is naturalized in settler discourse.

If the Masters of the Mystic Arts set up the sanctum as part of colonization then “defending the planet” from extradimensional threats means defending the settler’s world, defending a colonial cosmology; the destruction of the native cosmos is already including in their very settlerness. If they were there before colonization, why did they not defend the native cosmos from settler invasion? From what little we’ve seen there is no question of ability. Through making portals they could’ve simply rerouted ships back towards their own lands or to Antarctica or beneath the ocean surface, all that before considering their superiority in potential violence. Dr. Strange’s cosmos explores neither of these because it cannot. To explore either one is to question the premise of the settler cosmos. Instead it goes unasked. Like all basic questions of settler colonialism, it is simply naturalized in discourse at a level below the observable because it is the frame through which observations are made. The comics offer a little more information on this but it’s really more of the same, naturalizing indigenous removal in the narrative as a natural progression from native to settler. The dispossession of natives is as fundamental to settler imaginary universes, including the settler fantastic, as it is to the material settler colony. This also shows yet again the limits of improved representation alone. The question of settler normativity is structural, not representative and basic changes to the Marvel universe are required to address this spell of settler normativity.

The Atlanteans and the Middle Passage

This essay was inspired Nijla Mu’Min’s extraordinary film Deluge. Thanks to Amrah Salomon for feedback on the draft.

 

Superheroes have celebrated origin stories. Gamma radiation gives rise to shapeshifting rage monsters. Extraterrestrial parentage provides biological powers. A magician’s curse or a nibble from a radioactive arachnid can turn one superpowered. The story of how one gets one’s powers is a defining part of superhero stories. It is, after all, the sine qua non of any superhero’s existence. But what about the universes in which the superheroes operate? Why don’t we look at their origin stories? And what can those origin stories tell us about the comics universes and popular discourse? What follows explores the origin stories of the DC and Marvel universes through their respective Atlantean populations, focusing on a missing narrative fundamental of the world in which virtually all stories in the DC and Marvel lines happen: African Slavery.

The Marvel and DC universes take place, with some exceptions, in the United States settler colony. The United States has two systemic structures without which it does not exist: African Slavery and Indian Removal (or at least it does not exist in anything remotely resembling its current form). These are the bedrocks of settler colonialism on the continent. The simultaneous destruction of the native world and construction of the anti-Black one define everything from many colloquialisms in White American English to property and land law to policing to the names of sports teams to holidays and comprise the preponderance of U.S. history, not to mention the entire physical geography.

Can this be less true in the Marvel and DC universes? They both have Black characters, albeit relatively few and poorly drawn – often in both senses of the term. Black as an identity (or, per anti-Blackness, a site of capital accumulation and location for gratuitous violence) is tied to the legacy of settler colonialism’s African Slavery. If there was African Slavery then there was transport of enslaved peoples from Africa to colonized Turtle Island (North America). So where were the Atlanteans of the respective DC and Marvel universes during the Middle Passage? Where were Aquaman’s and Namor’s ancestors when the first rebelling or newborn enslaved Africans were tossed overboard to drown, be eaten by sharks or drift slowly to the bottom of the Atlantic?

Exploring these ideas identifies dramatic narrative gaps in between the worlds where these stories purport to take place and the world in which they are told. That they are missing from the Marvel and DC universes exemplifies settler normativity, how the destruction of the native world and construction of the settlers’ anti-Black one is naturalized in and baselines politics and society. Settler colonialism is the organization of power that accomplishes this simultaneous destruction/construction. It is how native Turtle Island becomes the anti-Black North America for example.

It also creates a worldview for its inhabitants. In the same way that men struggle to see sexism, instead just seeing ‘normal’, settlers struggle to see settler colonialism. This settler normativity is one of our very frames of reference. It is basic to our understanding of the world. It is why when we hear about the 49ers we think about the football team or the miners of the gold rush, not the populist genocide the actual ‘fortyniners carried out, despite the depopulation of native California by far being their most enduring and impactful legacy. To question settler colonialism is to question the very world the settlers make. We don’t ask where Aquaman’s ancestors were during the Middle Passage because African Slavery is naturalized in society. It, like men not seeing sexism, is a level below the observable because it is the frame through which observations are made.

So where were Aquaman and Namor’s great-great-great grandparents when they first encountered African Slavery? What was their reaction? How would those reactions change the DC and Marvel universes? I explore some potential scenarios in the paragraphs that follow. Some of these fit inside the current DC and Marvel continuities, namely, the more horrible ones. Others disrupt the current continuities, including those that stop African Slavery in its infancy.

 

Scenario 1: Hotlantis

Those thrown overboard are rescued by Atlanteans and form an Afro-descendent Atlantean population or are assisted in returning home. This does not require significant adjustment of current continuities.

Scenario 2: Successful Anti-Slavery Intervention

The Atlanteans intervene against the slavers and prevent the Middle Passage from happening. Scenario five can work in conjunction with this. This is, in the DC universe term, an Elseworld and is irreconcilable with the current continuities. Scenarios 3 and 4 show why it is irreconcilable.

Scenario 3: Post-Intervention A

Superman’s rocket lands in Pawnee country since there is no Kansas in which to crash without African Slavery. Superman is now a Pawnee hero. This is irreconcilable with the current continuities.

Scenario 4: Post-Intervention B

Without African Slavery there is no such place as Gotham in which Thomas and Martha Wayne are shot to later be patrolled by their son Batman. They remain British aristocrats. If Bruce Wayne grows up to be a billionaire vigilante he does so in the UK. This is irreconcilable with the current continuities.

Scenario 5: No Response

The Atlanteans first encounter African Slavery through the at sea disposal of newborns or rebelling Africans and either react only to the drowned bodies and not to the act of drowning or simply go about their business. Here the Atlanteans would be concerned with whaling ships more than slave ships (though the ecological damage of African Slavery is in fact substantial!), to the degree they’re concerned with surface dwellers at all. This does not require adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 6: Unsuccessful Intervention

The Atlanteans attempt to intervene and fail and the Middle Passage continues. This is the basis for the Atlantean distance from the surface dweller world for the next four hundred years until the eras of Aquaman and Namor. This does not require significant adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 7: Complicity

Both Atlantean worlds are monarchies of one kind or another which suggests regressive politics. It is thus entirely feasible that Aquaman and Namor’s ancestors were complicit in the Middle Passage in some way. Was a tribute or toll paid to those who control the seas? Thus Atlanteans owe reparations of some kind and direct action at the Justice League headquarters is in order. This does not require significant adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 8: Opportunistic/Humanitarian Intervention

The history of humanitarian intervention is dominated by the interveners integrating a crisis or oppressive system into their own politics rather than ending the crisis or oppression. Alternately put, humanitarian intervention is with few exceptions a tool of empire. Entirely plausible in an intervention scenario is Atlanteans taking over the slave trade rather ending it. This does not require significant adjustment of current continuities.

 

An honest account of U.S. history means dealing with the ugly truths of settler colonialism. Settler society cultural production helps avoid these ugly truths by producing myths. Not myths as in, superpowered beings in symbolic grand battles. But myths as in, the United States settler colony somehow being post-colonial. As it stands, the most implausible thing about comics is not that some beings can fly without apparent means of propulsion, but that they take place in a United States without Indian Removal and African Slavery. DC and Marvel comics are not imagining a utopia without colonialism even if they may think they are. Instead they imagine a world where colonialism doesn’t matter or doesn’t matter anymore, mountains of facts to the contrary be damned.

Comics can do better. Comics can narrate the colonial present and retcon their respective universes to where settler colonialism, including African Slavery and Indian Removal, happen and impact the universes accordingly. Elseworlds-style stories are one way of accomplishing this. For example there is the as-yet not made story Superman: Alien where the Man of Steel’s rocket is found by Mexican migrant workers on a Kansas farm. He then gets deported with his adoptive parents and grows up to be a Mexican superhero. That is at least as plausible as him being found by the white farm owners. This and the more tragic alternate visions offered above veer away from the current continuities in that they contextualize events as if they take place in the universes they purport to.

The question is one of decolonizing comics. Not as in, comics were colonized and must now be decolonized. That is silly. Nobody colonized comics books. To the contrary, comics in the United States are part of settler colonial cultural production. So in decolonizing comics we seek comics that are decolonizing acts; that are decolonizing narratives and, potentially, tools. Some indie comics and zines already explore this. Yet mainstream comics can too play a role in subverting settler normativity through dealing with the world settler colonialism made, the world in which the comics universes exist. One possible story to tell in this direction is the one that tells the story of the Atlanteans during the Middle Passage. Aquaman’s ancestors have some explaining to do.

 

The Apocalypse’s Apocalypse and Post-Apocalyptic Visions of Sunshine and Blessings

This posts stems from a conversation with Kyle Johnson after we watched Mad Max: Fury Road together. Thanks to Linda Quiquivix , Zoé Samudzi and William Copeland for feedback on the idea and draft to help make it vaguely coherent. In thinking about worlds I leaned heavily on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Frank Wilderson’s Red, White and Black even where not cited directly. None of the above can be blamed for what follows. After completing the draft a couple of friends put me onto this great recent CBC conversation which also covers parts of what is below. Special thanks to Cass Chen who was a wonderful friend, host and conversationalist while I scribbled.

George Miller’s 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Like most apocalypse/post-apocalyptic stories Fury Road comments on the present through envisioning a dystopic future. The film opens with news clips framing the violence to follow as descended from resource wars and global warming. Resource extraction and climate change are ready topics for exploring the end of the world and it is no surprise to find them as common topics for apocalyptic storytelling in cinema, novels, television and comic books. In settler colonies these stories comment upon today’s problems while neglecting that another apocalypse, one suffered by the indigenous population, pre-dates the story. Exploring post-apocalyptic storytelling with this in mind challenges settler colonial normativity and further opens up the world’s end to decolonizing visions.

Ending Othered Worlds

Fury Road, Brian K. Vaughn & Pia Guerra’s comic book Y: The Last Man and Robert Rodat’s tv series Falling Skies all offer different causes to the apocalypse. Fury Road is unspecific but points towards ecological destruction through climate change and resource wars. Y: The Last Man‘s apocalypse is an unspecified illness or curse that simultaneously kills all the mammals with a Y chromosome (in an unproduced script, Vaughn lays the blame with a U.S. biological weapons attack on China). Falling Skies‘s end of the world comes from extraterrestrial invasion.

Fury Road further comments on climate change and monopolization of resources as a means of centralizing authoritarian, patriarchal power. It follows a group of people through a mostly empty wasteland as they seek the “green place” while they are hunted by those who control the resources. Y: The Last Man narrates Agent 355 and Dr. Allison Mann as they seek to find a cause and cure for the plague that killed all terrestrial mammals with the Y chromosome but for Yorick Brown and his monkey Ampersand. The authors focus on patriarchy, Israeli militarism and market violence. While it is is a global story, it starts in the United States and most of its key plots points take place in three settler colonies, the United States, Israel and Australia, before departing to Japan and France later on. Falling Skies looks at the Second Massachusetts, an irregular militia comprised of survivors of the extraterrestrial Espheni conquest that killed 90% of Earth’s human population as they seek to overthrow Espheni rule and restore the United States. Falling Skies affirms American exceptionalism, laments how the U.S. strayed from the perceived ideals of early republic and takes a geocentric view of the universe in its firmly conservative critique of the present.

These stories offer three different critiques of the present from three different political views and are produced in three different mediums in two different settler colonies. Yet all are representative of a genre of post-apocalyptic storytelling that does not contemplate that the lost U.S. and Australian societies are premised upon settler genocides against the native populations. The closest any of the three comes and the closest the overwhelming preponderance of the genre come is when Y: The Last Man briefly discusses Israeli civil disobedience against Israeli bulldozing of Palestinian houses as part of developing the Israeli character Alter. One notable exception is Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto which engages a pending colonial apocalypse only to justify it. Another is District 9 where some references are made yet are mediated by the white South African hero.

Settler colonialism, the establishment of the stories’ lost worlds, is an anti-native apocalypse and, in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Brazil and Rhodesia, also an anti-Black apocalypse. The racializations of Black and native are mostly different but were simultaneously constructed through the same colonizing events. Both are products of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism builds the settler’s world – the anti-Black world – by destroying the native world and does so in a 1:1 ratio. Every acre created of coastal British/American Virginia is one acre less of Powhatan Tsenacommacah. Every dunam of Israel is one less dunam of Palestine. Settler colonialism through eliminating sovereignties and populations and creating regimes of gratuitous violence brings about the end of a world. It is sometimes even named as such as when Palestinians refer to the accelerated 1947-1949 period of Zionist ethnic cleansing and the establishment of the Israeli settler state as the Nakba (‘catastrophe’).

That we settlers comprise an anti-native apocalypse means that all our cultural production is apocalyptic, is the product of an ongoing apocalypse, including post-apocalyptic visions. John Grisham’s The Firm is an apocalyptic novel of legal corruption. Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” is an unrequited love anthem of the apocalypse. Strictly Ballroom is a film about apocalyptic cross-cultural and cross-class ballroom dancing and romance. Almost all of Danielle Steel’s opus are apocalyptic love story books. Only Miley Cyrus’ career of those four actually feels like a sign of the apocalypse but all are inherently apocalyptic as products of settler colonialism. What the intended post-apocalyptic stories Fury Road, Y: The Last Man and Falling Skies unknowingly narrate is a prior apocalypse experiencing an apocalypse itself, the apocalypse’s apocalypse. The destruction of the settler colony provides the post-apocalyptic wasteland the protagonists navigate.

Elizabeth Povinelli describes settler normativity as the “organization of sociality on the basis of the naturalness of a civilizational displacement.” Alternately put, anti-native genocide, quashing of native sovereignties and, in some settler colonies, African slavery are the fabrics that weave together and underline all settler colonial discourse and relations. Settler everyday life is the anti-native and anti-Black apocalypse but for we settlers, it is just life. In this read Furiosa and Max are settler revolutionaries fighting Immortan Joe and the settler capitalists over control of stolen Aborigine land and resources. This is why it is unsurprising that Falling Skies and Y: The Last Man both fail to engage the anti-native apocalypse despite making numerous references to the early U.S. republic, a time when even normative settler discourse knows (but always remembers to forget) that Indian Removal programs were aggressively underway in some way, shape or form.

It is hard to imagine dystopic settler stories being otherwise for settler colonialism, like all organizations of power, builds the world it inhabits. In settler colonialism’s world settler colonialism – the anti-native and anti-Black apocalypses – is near impossible to see as it is our very frame of reference. A challenging thing about normativity is it’s paradigm paradox: From what frame of reference can we observe our frame of reference? When settlers imagine the end of the world then, we imagine it as synonymous with the end of the planet or species and not the end of settler colonialism’s world. But stories consciously narrating the apocalypse’s apocalypse could describe the end of that world. They can offer a new frame of reference and play a role in subverting and disrupting settler colonial power and discourse.

The World is Ending! Hooray!

Settler storytellers explore all kinds of fascinating, entertaining and illuminating scenarios to describe the end of the world. The Terminator and The Matrix stories look to the artificial intelligence singularity. Deep Impact ends part of the world with a comet collision. The Walking Dead comic book, tv series and a long-running series of George Romero’s of the Dead films narrate a zombie apocalypse. The Wayward Pines book trilogy and tv series look at apocalypse through divergent evolution and On the Beach‘s apocalypse happens through nuclear war. None of the above reflect on the anti-native and anti-Black apocalypses.

Potentially even non-anthropocentric ones can be told. For example there is Vitamin Z – a yet to be made film documenting the multiyear boon in slow-moving, uncoordinated, easily obtainable, though quite bitey, prey for carnivores and scavengers that follows the zombie apocalypse and restores their populations to pre-capitalist/pre-colonial population levels. I hope Keith David or David Attenborough is available to narrate!

But what about when the end of the world is the apocalypse’s apocalypse? Frank Wilderson notes that, “The Slave needs freedom from the Human race, freedom from the world. The Slave requires gratuitous freedom.” Indeed, settler colonialism’s world of dispossession and gratuitous violence not only can end, but should. Stories of the end of this particular world need not be burnt skies and genocide. In narrating the end of an apocalypse they may well tell the opposite: clean air, vitality and an end to gratuitous violence and suffering. The end of settler colonialism’s world can be sunshine and blessings, little children laughing and singing silly songs, lovers dancing or any other beautiful thing. These are legit post-apocalyptic visions when describing an apocalypse happening to a prior apocalypse when combined with Black and native liberation. So are ones less polarly optimistic or romantic.

The material world stories of the whole or partial end of settler rule in Zimbabwe, Liberia and South Africa are decidedly complicated and frequently tragic. Settler colonialism is not the only wronging world in play as Black feminism’s intersectional resistance teaches. Yet stories consciously telling the apocalypse’s apocalypse can offer a discursive break, a frame of reference separate from settler colonialism’s dispossession and gratuitous violence. As Frantz Fanon wrote, “To break up the colonial world does not mean that after the frontiers have been abolished lines of communication will be set up between the two [colonial and decolonized] zones. The destruction of the colonial world is no more and no less than the abolition of one zone, its burial in the depths of the earth.” Stories telling the end of this world can be part of the shovel.

None of this is to argue that post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic stories cannot be robot apocalypses, nuclear holocausts or extraterrestrial invasions. They are frequently insightful, critical, imaginative and even beautiful. But such visions can still adopt a frame of reference not dependent upon settler colonialism’s dispossession and gratuitous violence and recognize that the anti-native and anti-Black apocalypses have long been happening. In doing so stories of the apocalypse’s apocalypse can obliterate a world that has it coming.

American ‘Moral Bankruptcy’ and Israel Policy

Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt published an essay on 22 July in The Huffington Post titled, “AIPAC Is the Only Explanation for America’s Morally Bankrupt Israel Policy.” The piece focuses on how much the U.S. political leadership supported the recent Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip and its attacks throughout the West Bank. In Walt’s analysis, this support stems exclusively (or at least overwhelmingly) from what he and University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer famously call “The Israel Lobby”. The article’s title uses “AIPAC” (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) as shorthand for those organizations working to shape U.S. political discourse on Palestine including a variety of Christian and Jewish Zionist groups like Christians United for Israel, Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and others. These organizations are the “explanation for America’s impotent and morally bankrupt policy,” and are why this policy is “so at odds with [America’s] professed values.” As he and Mearsheimer do in their book, Walt also points to how U.S. policy on Palestine is profoundly against the U.S. national interest.

Walt’s analysis in the article and the Israel Lobby thesis more broadly are fundamentally flawed. Rather than refute specific points in Walt’s article I’ll instead lay out a different framework in which we can read the United States’ Israel policy. First I’ll concede all the facts in Walt’s article and The Israel Lobby, including those that are wrong. They are important but for the purposes of this essay they are largely immaterial. I fully agree that there are well organized lobbying groups and political organizations that are influential in both the details and fervor of the United States’ Israel policy. While their political donations may pale in comparison to, for example, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries or trial lawyers, they are impressive in their ability to mobilize bases for political action including letters to congressschmucks and the media, outreach to public officials and more (including, sometimes, voting). Their mobilizing acumen is matched by few lobbying efforts. All that being said, the basis and broad contours of the U.S. policy were already shaped long before Theodore Herzl was born.

Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940 that, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. […] The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.” Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, bell hooks and others have made the point similarly or better in the time since. Benjamin was writing specifically about European fascism including that of Nazi Germany. One concrete example, though he didn’t use this one himself, is that Nazism can only be astonishing if we refuse to listen to the Nama and Herero people of Namibia against whom the prior German regime genocided in the Südwestafrika settler colony. The “tradition of the oppressed” includes tools of analysis about and histories of resistance against European fascism that predated fascism on the European continent. For this essay, “the tradition of the oppressed” has a lot more to say about the United States’ “morally bankrupt [Israel] policy” than The Israel Lobby and related essays and clarifies what the country’s “professed values” actually mean. Put briefly, the Israel Lobby thesis suffers from the mistaken premise that U.S. history is something other than a horror story. Recontextualizing the Israel lobby and U.S. policy provides not only better understanding, but also more opportunities for transformative change.

Settlers Apart, Settlers Together

Like Israel, the United States is a settler colony. Both simultaneously establish themselves and eliminate indigenous sovereignty along with, in one way or the other, indigenous populations. Reductively put, every five acres of the United States is five acres less of Turtle Island.* The elimination is carried out through physical extermination, expulsion, disarticulating native indigeneity (for example trying to make Palestinians into ‘Israeli Arabs’ or removing indigenous children to raise them in the settler society) and more. In the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand and many other settler colonies, combinations of all of the above are used to ends certainly no less ‘morally bankrupt’ than the U.S.’s Israel policy. To the point of this essay, settler colonies recognize each other and use that recognition to build solidarity.

The Myths & Facts website is a project evolved from the Myths and Facts texts AIPAC began publishing in the 1970s. In the website’s “The U.S.-Israel Special Relationship” series, Eli Hertz notes “the affinity between Israel and the United States draws on the fact that both countries are democracies and share a host of other enlightened values, including a similar defining ethos as nations of immigrations,” (After a time, all settler societies call themselves ‘nations of immigrants’ and not ‘nations of settlers’). He continues, “both nations were built by waves of refugees or persecuted immigrants who sought religious, political, or economic freedom.” U.S. President Barack Obama made a similar appeal to U.S.-Australian solidarity during a 2011 address in Darwin, Australia.The bonds between us run deep. In each other’s story we see so much of ourselves. Ancestors who crossed vast oceans – some by choice, some in chains. Settlers who pushed west across sweeping plains. Dreamers who toiled with hearts and hands to lay railroads and to build cities. Generations of immigrants who, with each new arrival, add a new thread to the brilliant tapestry of our nations.” A more crude (honest?) version is that of former Israeli ambassador to Australia Naftali Tamir. In a 2006 interview calling for closer cooperation between Australia and Israel Tamir said, “Asia is basically the continent of the Yellow race. Australia and Israel do not belong to it – we basically belong to the White race.” Further, “Israel and Australia are like sisters in Asia. We are located in Asia but without the characteristics of Asians, our skin is not yellow nor are our eyes slanted.”

In addition to calls for solidarity with other settler societies based on the mere fact of being settlers themselves, settler discourse also points to other settler colonies to determine who will be allowed to join the colony. Walt’s Harvard University colleague George Borjas writes in The Washington Post, “While the United States has proven cautious about addressing [what kind and how many immigrants does it want], several other ‘nations of immigrants’ (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have far more proactive approaches to immigration: They have devised systems that are designed to favor people who will contribute economically to the country and who will assimilate quickly.” Borjas’ 2001 article is predated by around a century by the various anti-Asian policies that South Africa, Australia (under the banner of “White Australia”), the United States (especially in California) and Canada (especially in British Columbia) developed to restrict Asian immigration. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds examine in depth the how the various White settler colonies’ anti-Asian policies influenced each other in their 2008 volume Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Challenge for Racial Equality. Judd Yadid offers a liberal version in a 2013 Haaretz article about Australian Jewish hostility to South African Jewish immigration. “Those Australian Jews that criticize the influx and eccentricities of their South African brethren should show more empathy, and be mindful of the fact that they themselves are the offspring of immigrants. In fact, the entire non-indigenous population of the great southern land were once newcomers.” Yadid’s examination looks beyond Australian Jewish prejudice against South African Jews to critique Australia’s racist immigration policies. Yet by the article’s end he manages to use a critique of xenophobic racism to declare permanent settler colonialism. Most mainstream and liberal migrant justice discourse in settler colonies does this, again under the banner of ‘nation of immigrants’.

This mutual recognition that ‘they are like us’ amongst White settler colonies breeds frequent solidarity and joint political action. A full accounting of such actions would narrate a significant part of the 20th century but a few examples of this Settler International in action are in order. In numerous United Nations General Assembly votes on the question of Palestine, Israel is nearly alone in voting against the resolutions. Among the very few countries that regularly vote the Israeli side are Australia, Canada and the United States. The United States and Israel were two of the few countries that supported settler rule in South Africa nearly until the end. Both supported the apartheid regime with arms and trade assistance while Israel also contributed troops for combat fighting. John Collins – whose engagement of Benjamin heavily influences mine above – in his book Global Palestine narrates how the famous 1948-49 Berlin Airlift was carried out by “a who’s who of settler colonialism,” (United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK, the latter managing settlement in Northern Ireland and Southern Rhodesia). The list goes on.

Settler colonies, apart from the secular far Right-wing, rarely pronounce or conceive of their solidarity in phrasings openly recognizing indigenous removal and doing so is unnecessary. Settler colonialism is an organization of power like capitalism, patriarchy or White supremacy. Its power is not just political and geographic, but also discursive producing a settler normativity – what Elizabeth Povinelli described as the “organization of sociality on the basis of the naturalness of a civilizational displacement.” It need not be spoken or even consciously thought in hegemonic discourse. It is basic to settlers’ understanding of the world, often too basic to notice. A common example in the United States is the popular NFL football team the San Francisco 49ers. The original ‘forty-niners were populist genocidaires. The historical formation of the ‘forty-niner is inextricably tied to genocide and the conquest of California’s indigenous populace. Yet the football team is discursively divorced from the practices of the actual ‘forty-niners.

Indigenous removal is so basic to the settler cosmology that its daily celebrations of the genocidaires – on currency, in street, school and team names, on monuments, in holidays, etc. – pass unnoticed. Settler normativity is as much part of foreign policy as it is domestic as noted above in the appeal to fellow ‘nations of immigrants’. Settler colonialism is a baseline of U.S. policy, whether foreign or domestic. Without the Israel Lobby, it’s still difficult to imagine the United States being predisposed to solidarity with an indigenous people against another White settler colony when it has resisted doing so in every other case, even if eventually taking somewhat critical positions on Southern Rhodesia, Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Last, when settler rule in Palestine does fall, it will be the first modern example of settler rule falling when the settlers formed a majority of the population in the colony for any amount of time. That should be (Beautifully! Wonderfully! Literally!) unsettling to other settler societies, even those where settlers are the vast majority of the population.

Moral Bankruptcy and the American Tradition, or, the U.S. is a Shithole and They Made it That Way

The United States’ “professed values” range from ‘freedom’ to ‘democracy’ to ‘equality’ and similar phrasings. This is sleight of hand. The “morally bankrupt” Israel policy is representative of American policy as the “tradition of the oppressed” indicates.

Since the settler colony broke from its British sponsor in 1776, the United States has averaged just under 1.4 military deployments per year. Most are not large scale invasions and some, like evacuations, are easily or plausibly defensible. But most are not. A great many are bald interventions on behalf of U.S. business operations threatened by local demands for control of resources.

As noted above, the very premise of the United States is Indian Removal, one of two sine qua nons of the settler colony’s existence. And every year more land is colonized for mineral extraction, new housing developments and other reasons. Native children continue to be disarticulated from their indigeneity, abducted by the state to be raised in the settler society. Native political prisoners languish in U.S. prisons while the settler society creates native fetish objects as sports mascots and costumes or celebrates the genocidaires themselves.

The other sine qua non of U.S. history is African slavery, the labor of which built the nation’s wealth. Beyond stolen labor, U.S. tradition imagines Black bodies as infinitely fungible as Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartmann, and others have described. Slaveowners attempted to turn enslaved Black people into whatever tool they needed followed by nonconsensual medical experiments and forced sterilization. As just one example today, prison labor programs where a wildly disproportionately Black prison population works for menial wages in fields that – by and large – won’t hire a convict upon release. Mass incarceration itself is part of a racial caste system targeting Black people as George Jackson, Angela Davis, Mariam Kaba and others have demonstrated.

One effect of White Supremacy and settler colonialism is a lower life expectancy for Black and indigenous people. For the present population, the 4.3 years average difference in life expectancy amounts to over 167 million total years collectively stolen from Black people. The discrepancy for the much smaller native population still amounts to over 5.7 million years stolen. These are quantities of years normally reserved for geologic or evolutionary discussions. Lest this be thought unintentional, the lack of accountability for the murders of Black people is an affirmation of stolen life. Indigenous dispossession and African slavery are in fact mutually constitutive as Andrea Smith illuminates.

The United States is by law, homophobic and transphobic (some aspects of which are being reformed under the banner of assimilationism).

The United States is officially anti-working class. One conspicuous element is immigration policy where working class people from other nations – especially Black and Brown people – find it nearly impossible to get visas.

U.S. economic policy is designed to facilitate wealth accumulation by those who already have it.

To make an exhaustive list would assume a naivety neither most proponents of the Israel Lobby theory nor other readers possess. The point is that “moral bankruptcy” is the default American position. Even those benefits that do accrue to people of color, the working class and middle class are largely predicated on exploitation abroad or on another group at home. Moral bankruptcy is a didactic and clumsy yet perfectly accurate description for American history.

In addition to settler colonialism, other fundaments of American policy, foreign and domestic, are capitalism, patriarchy and White supremacy. The U.S. prefers Israel to Palestine for reasons of Israeli wealth against Palestinian poverty (capitalist normativity, more about which in the next section). For having a more familiar articulation of patriarchy (often celebrated as gender liberal Israelis vs. gender conservative Palestinians). For Israel being dominated by Ashkenazim (Jews of European ancestry) and thus White, whereas Palestinians are people of color (White supremacist normativity). All of these are in step with American history and U.S. policy towards other nations. Only an untenable conception of American history produces the popular Israel lobby thesis.

American Foreign Policy With and Without The Lobby

The United States has a history of supporting regressive regimes that had no specific lobby of note. As with the previous section, there is no need for an exhaustive list. There are volumes upon volumes filled with critiques of U.S. support for regressive regimes including Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy and numerous others.

For decades the United States was the prime sponsor of the successive Duvalier regimes in Haiti. The U.S. was a key player in the 1953 anti-Mossadegh coup in Iran and the prime sponsor of the ensuing Shah regime. Before Israel was even a state the United States was sponsoring the brutal Saudi monarchy. The U.S. has supported regressive regimes in Central America for well over a century. The U.S. was a strong supporter of the Mobutu regime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.S. supported the Nicaraguan Somoza regimes right up until the end and then spent the ensuing decade sponsoring the reactionary Contra militia against the Sandinista regime (against which it still intervenes).

In none of these examples was there a specific lobby in Washington comparing in size or scope to the Israel Lobby yet the U.S. still aggressively supports regressive policies. There were capitalist forces pushing for these policies generally, some with a more specific focus than others. For example, Mossadegh’s democratic socialist policies would have reigned in U.S. and British profits, especially in the petroleum industry. Fruit companies lobbied for support to regressive forces Central America in response to labor uprisings in and peasant mobilization against agribusiness. Various capitalist lobbies support Nicaragua policy in response to the Sandinista’s democratic socialist policy platform.

Capitalist interests are key drivers of U.S. foreign policy and always have been. They have been most aggressive in supporting regressive policy when anti-capitalist, or even liberal, regimes and resistance movements seeking to reign in capitalism were present. This fits with with Israel policy too. When the U.S. first began serious intervention in support of Israel the Palestine Liberation Organization was dominated by groups that ranged from democratic socialist to communist.

In the case of the United States belatedly and partially opposing settler rule in South Africa, it did so only under great pressure domestically and internationally. Even then only against the more crudely racist apartheid legislation and settler legislative rule. However capitalism and settler colonialism in South Africa are intertextual. The United States supported only ending settler legislative rule and the settler capitalist class remains a tremendous political force today. Opponents of ending settler rule framed the ANC, Black Conscious Movement and others as communist or socialist revolutionary organizations (with some accuracy!) to couch their opposition in terms other than explicit White supremacy. The PLO too was frequently discussed as socialist, communist or, more commonly, affiliated with or sponsored by China or the U.S.S.R.

Capitalism, like settler colonialism, is a fundamental U.S. political framework and Israel is a neoliberal capitalist state. That is part of their “shared values” and it is a reason the U.S. is partisan to Israel.

Who Defines the National Interest?

U.S. national interests in Southwest Asia aren’t easy to pin down. They vary wildly depending on who is making policy. For example, many political science Realists decried the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They said it would be counterproductive to U.S. interests in the regime. But recall the headline several years back: “Exxon. Biggest. Profit. Ever.” John Dewey said “Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” In that light, the war was very much in the national interest as defined by the oil lobbies close to the G.W. Bush Administration. So who is casting the biggest shadow at any given moment? That defines “national interest” as much as anything else.

In the case of Israel we’ve seen the U.S. bring its client state to heel on numerous occasions when the ‘national interest’ as defined by those in power was threatened. The U.S. in 2006 denied Israel Aerospace Industries export licenses for certain systems thereby disqualifying it from a South Korean US$1.5 billion AWACS tender, by default giving Boeing the contract as the only other bidder.

When China sent Harpy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) it purchased from Israel in 1994 back to the country for upgrading in 2004, the U.S. intervened and prohibited Israel from sending back the UAVs, upgraded or not, despite them not containing U.S. technology and Israel no longer owning the machines. This is particularly notable because Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz – both prominent far Right supporters of Israel – led the campaign of pressure.

Israel Aerospace Industries won a contract in 1998 to sell its Phalcon AWACS system to China in a deal worth over US$1 billion, but under U.S. pressure, not only cancelled the deal but paid China a $350 million cancellation fee.

The Israel Lobby and the Israeli state lobbied vigorously against the Reagan Administration’s decision to sell AWACS systems to Saudi Arabia in what was then the largest – by dollar value – arms export in U.S. history. But Reagan, Secretary of State Alexander Haig and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger all pushed through the sale. In the end, they even took away the ‘pro-Israel’ position by couching the sale of one of the world’s most advanced weapons systems to Saudi Arabia as beneficial to “the security of Israel and peace itself.” Time and time again, especially around the arms trade, the United States disregards Israel’s wishes and even intense efforts by the Israel Lobby.

Broad general support with occasional disciplining is about what we would expect for a client state (this is being admittedly reductive). Examining the successes and failures of of the Israel lobby paints a clearer picture of the U.S. national interest as defined by those who actually enforce it. In the view of those who define the U.S. national interest, Palestinian liberation is simply a secondary or non-issue, hence the Israel Lobby’s near uniform success on anything related to Palestinian liberation.

All of the above is without even considering Israel’s actual role in U.S. empire as a regional heavy, bulwark against progressive Arab nationalism, conduit for U.S. arms sales to unsavory clients, subsidy for the U.S. arms industry and more (a topic for an essay to come). Israel is an important client state and that has a lot to do with U.S. support.

But the Israel Lobby does matter

All of this is to say that, contrary to the Israel Lobby thesis, AIPAC is not the only explanation for America’s morally bankrupt Israel policy. Moral bankruptcy is the U.S. default position and defining policy agenda. The United States historically shows tremendous support for other White settler states, no matter the size of any lobby. The United States historically shows tremendous support for colonizers over the colonized. The United States historically opposes revolutionary social movements whether at home or abroad, especially those led by people of color and indigenous people. The United States historically supports its clients states no matter what they do. The United States historically supports wealthier states over poorer ones (or movements representing working class liberation). There is nothing aberrant about the United States’ Israel policy with the exception of its ferocity.

The lengths the U.S. goes to in order to defend Israeli policy are indeed a little unusual. The ferocity is at a level normally reserved for anti-communist, anti-Black, anti-feminist and other domestic and foreign policies that threaten normative organizations of power. Here, finally, this seems to be the Israel Lobby at work. This is not to minimize the importance of the Israel Lobby. It is directly involved in shaping oppressive policy and discourse even if it is not fundamental to policy direction. Further, it is well-funded and almost competently organized (I won’t belabor the point but significant resources can mask a lot of incompetency. For example see every well funded public or private bureaucracy anywhere on the planet and The Peter Principle.). It is also a consciously ideological colonizing effort making it an important voice in settler colonialism. The Israel Lobby matters and it matters a lot. It is not, however, “the only explanation for America’s morally bankrupt Israel policy.” In my reading, it is not even a main reason. It is just one of several articulations of settler solidarity practiced by the U.S., unusual only in it vociferousness.

AIPAC and related groups cannot and should not be ignored. But addressing AIPAC should be couched in ways that also address the U.S.’s funamentally regressive politics. It’s true that one or more aspects of settler rule did fall in Southern Rhodesia, South West Africa, and South Africa and that, at a very late date, the U.S. did come around to opposing aspects of settler rule in these colonies. Perhaps this can be done with Palestine too. Walt and Mearsheimer’s Israel Lobby advocates for such a course by playing into American exceptionalism and locating the U.S.’s Palestine policy as anomalous.

But there is nothing exceptional about the U.S.’s Israel policy. Recognizing this, coming to a tenable conception of history, opens up possibilities for joint struggle and resistance, coalition building and movement growth in ways that are not possible otherwise (as groups like the United States Palestinian Community Network, INCITE! Women, Trans and Gender Nonconforming People of Color Against Violence, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and others have been doing for some time). A tenable conception of history sharpens our ability to understand and organize against oppressive policies.

* Turtle Island is a term several indigenous nations – especially though not exclusively those in the northeast towards the Atlantic – use for what the settler societies and European geography call North America. I use it as an example of one common name of many, not to privilege the term over other indigenous geographies.